February 05, 2021

CNAS Responds: U.S. Ends Support to Saudi War in Yemen

By Richard Fontaine, Ilan Goldenberg, Elisa Catalano Ewers, Becca Wasser, and Kaleigh Thomas

On Thursday, President Biden announced the end of U.S. support to Saudi Arabia's military campaign in Yemen. In the advisory below, CNAS experts unpack key developments and possible outcomes for journalists to watch for. To arrange an interview, contact Cole Stevens at cstevens@cnas.org.

  • Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer: "President Biden is right to seek an end to the ill-conceived, poorly executed war in Yemen. Launched as a short-term operation to marginalize then-limited Iranian support for Houthi rebels, the conflict has dragged on for more than five years. Riyadh and its Emirati allies failed to reinstall the ousted government of Abdrabbu Mansur Hadi, and Iranian influence in Yemen is greater today than it was before the war began. As the conflict drags on, the belligerents have produced countless civilian casualties and induced famine and cholera. On both strategic and humanitarian grounds, the war in Yemen has been a failure.

    "It should have ended years ago. The administration's decision to cease offensive military support and its appointment of a peace envoy are good steps. Congress and the Trump administration should go further, conditioning weapons sales on concrete steps by Riyadh to end hostilities and enlisting allies to pressure Tehran and the Houthis to make peace. Bringing this conflict to a conclusion may not be easy while the Houthis are winning, but Yemen has long been home to parties willing to cut new deals based on changing incentives. The time to push toward a peace agreement is now."
  • Ilan Goldenberg, Director for Middle East Security: "President Biden’s decision to end support for offensive operations in Yemen and appoint a Special Envoy signals a pivot away from Trump’s Middle East strategy, which only escalated conflicts across the region. Supporting our friends should not mean giving them a green light to take reckless actions that have harmed their interests and ours and that have contributed to a grave humanitarian crisis. At the same time, continued U.S. support for defending Saudi Arabia from missiles and drones supplied by Iran, demonstrates the U.S. is not walking away from Saudi Arabia. And tapping an experienced envoy to lead U.S. efforts is also an act of friendship, as we try to help Saudi Arabia extricate itself from this conflict while helping the people of Yemen."
  • Elisa Catalano Ewers, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle East Security: "President Biden's steps regarding Yemen—the halt of any lingering military support to the Saudi-led coalition, and the review of both specific arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration's 11th hour FTO-designation of Ansar Allah, or the Houthi political movement—back up the new administration's commitment to a diplomacy-first, principled foreign policy. Taken together, the decisions show a renewed U.S. focus on its role in aiding humanitarian crises, and on being an active partner in the multilateral efforts to address this complex conflict through political means.

    "President Biden's public remarks also mark a willingness to put pressure on both the Saudi and the Houthi leaderships. To the former for the tragic strategic and operational failure of its military efforts, and to the latter for its flagrant attacks against Saudi soil and exploitation of the conflict. It is a balanced move towards the U.S.-Saudi relationship. It will be a long and hard road in Yemen, but these early steps show serious U.S. intent to push for de-escalation."
  • Becca Wasser, Fellow for Defense: "President Biden’s decision to end U.S. support for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen is a welcome move, and one that signals to Saudi and Emirati counterparts that diplomacy—not a military hammer—is the only way to resolve Yemen’s multiple overlapping conflicts. It is worth noting, however, that current U.S. support to the Saudi-led coalition has been reduced over time as aerial refueling was halted in 2018, leaving limited intelligence sharing and targeting support, and training to reduce civilian casualties as the major components of U.S. efforts. Moreover, U.S. special operations forces activities related to the counterterrorism mission against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will remain. With this in mind, President Biden’s move is largely symbolic rather than producing a dramatic change on Yemen’s battlefields.

    "This decision also augurs a shift in the U.S.-Saudi defense relationship. While the essential components of the security cooperation relationship—the defense of Saudi Arabia and continued U.S. military access within the country—remain the same, the contours will differ as Washington will no longer support or underwrite Riyadh’s military adventurism."
  • Kaleigh Thomas, Associate Fellow for Middle East Security: "This is an important first step in the Biden administration's effort to reset the U.S.-Saudi relationship as well as rethink why and how the United States engages militarily in the Middle East. Moving forward, officials in the Biden administration will hopefully continue to have forthright and honest conversations with Saudi Arabia and other U.S. partners in the region to better ensure these relationships serve shared interests but without sacrificing U.S. values."

Authors

  • Richard Fontaine

    Chief Executive Officer

    Richard Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He served as President of CNAS from 2012-19 and as Senior Advisor and Senior ...

  • Ilan Goldenberg

    Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program

    Ilan Goldenberg is Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He is a foreign policy and defense expert with ext...

  • Elisa Catalano Ewers

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Middle East Security Program

    Elisa Catalano Ewers is an Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), with 20 years of experience in U.S. na...

  • Becca Wasser

    Fellow, Defense Program

    Becca Wasser is a fellow in the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security. Her research areas include wargaming, force posture and management, and U.S. defense...

  • Kaleigh Thomas

    Associate Fellow, Middle East Security Program

    Kaleigh Thomas is the Associate Fellow for the Middle East Security Program and 2020 recipient of the 1LT Andrew J. Bacevich Jr., USA Award at CNAS. She also serves as the cof...